Harriet Harman has been criticised for offering only qualified opposition to the Tory's welfare bill. Photo: Getty Images
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Harriet Harman shows just how hard the next Labour leader's job will be

That Harriet Harman doesn't have enough goodwill to take Labour to the centre doesn't bode well for Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper. 

Here’s the big secret of the Labour leadership election: there is not, really, all that much difference between Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall.

They’re all moderate social democrats pursuing run-of-the-mill centre-left policy programmes. There are minor divisions on policy here and there, but the significant divide is one of tone.

That’s because the Kendall camp believe, in the words of one aide, “you’ve got to give the same answers. The things you say at this hustings have to be the same things you say on Marr, have to be the same things you say when you address Labour party conference as leader for the first time”.

“You have to win the leadership election to win the general election,” one Cooper-supporting MP told me recently. “You can’t fight two elections at once,” was the despairing verdict of one Kendall-inclined staffer.

Who’s right? The hostile tone of Kendall’s Facebook Q&A yesterday suggests they might both be. Thus far, it appears that no amount of worthy, left-wing policy on early years, ending tax reliefs or implementing a genuine living wage will make up for Kendall’s early heresies on free schools and defence spending.

But that suggests that the next general election might yet be decided on the back of Cooper’s insistence this week that Labour didn’t spend too much before the financial crisis, or Burnham’s aside that the 2015 manifesto was “the best” he’d ever stood on.

More troublingly, that much of the anger towards Kendall is also being directed at Harriet Harman suggests that taking Labour to the centre might be more difficult than it first appears. I used to think that Kendall’s problem was that a few months ago, most members hadn’t heard of her, and their first introduction to her was in support of the hated free schools programme.

But now, their deputy leader – the architect of the Equality Act, an MP of 33 years standing and one of the party’s most successful advocates for feminist ideals – suggests that it might be a good idea to oppose some, but not all of the government’s welfare bill, and is almost immediately branded a Tory.

If Harriet Harman - remember that for 20 of those years she's been in opposition - is a secret Conservative, she's been putting an awful lot of work into her disguise. She may be wrong to pick, child tax credits and not another aspect of the welfare bill to abstain on. But her record deserves a better hearing that she's got from her party - and her parliamentary colleagues. That Labour won't give Harman the benefit of the doubt suggests the party faithful are not in a listening mood.

It all suggests that when whichever one of Cooper or Burnham emerges as the winner delivers their first conference speech, they may quickly end up in the same dead end as Harman and Kendall are now. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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